BY ELDON GRAHAM
The name “Octavius V. Catto” might not be famous nationwide today among the roster of historical African American figures. But he is definitely deserving of recognition and worth being mentioned alongside names such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and W.E.B. DuBois.
In addition, his story unfolded right here in Philadelphia.
Catto, an advocate of social reform for African Americans during the tail end of the slavery period, was known as a Black educator, intellectual, and civil-rights activist before he was assassinated in the streets of Philadelphia near his home on Oct. 10, 1871, near Lombard Street. He was 32 years old.
Since his death, Philadelphia has tried many in ways to honor this great American hero of Emancipation and his endeavors. Recently, Mayor Jim Kenney announced arguably the most honorable recognition to date: a new sculpture of Catto will stand outside of City Hall.
Designed as a 12-foot bronze statue, it will be the first monument dedicated to the accomplishments of a single African American located at City Hall. Accompanying the statue of Catto is a granite representation of a 1860s horse-car and a mid-19th-century ballot box. Both items will be engraved with details about Catto’s life.
Other statues located outside city hall consist of prominent figures such as William Penn (atop City Hall), John Wanamaker, President William McKinley, John Christian Bullitt, Maj. Gen. John Fulton Reynolds, Gen. George McClellan and Matthias William Baldwin. Catto’s statue, which will be finished in early spring of 2017, will join the stately fray and be located on the southern half of City Hall along Market Street.
Upon the announcement in June, Mayor Kenney spoke delightedly about the African American activist. “I look around City Hall, and certainly the people memorialized, there are important people; but there is a space left, and that space belongs to Octavius Catto,” he explained. “He was the Dr. King and Jackie Robinson of his age.”
There is not enough time in the day to list all of Catto’s accomplishments during his short period on earth. He was a member of civil, political, and literary groups, while also a talented athlete, playing well in both cricket and baseball. Catto was also a major in the Pennsylvania National Guard, and a civil-rights activist who worked to integrate Phila. and fought for voter rights for African Americans.
Although history books are scarce with references to Catto, he was the essence of patriotism in his time. He actively recruited African Americans to the military, hence his big following and by military personnel, who honor him to this day.
According to Dr. Andy Waskie, a professor of Temple University and member of the O.V. Catto Society, “The society and supporting organizations have been commemorating Catto and his outstanding efforts, service and sacrifice for over 20 years and were pioneers in resurrecting the memory of Maj. O.V. Catto.”
They predate any other groups or organizations on behalf of Catto.
In an odd occurrence, the O.V. Catto Society has thus far not been asked or invited to be involved in the city-sponsored Catto Monument. “In fact, our sincere invitation to the Mayor and City officials to attend and participate in the 2017 Catto Honor ceremony was declined. For what reason, I do not know,” Waskie said.
“I hope we will eventually be invited to participate in any dedicatory ceremony. We are, of course, thrilled and delighted that O.V. Catto is finally receiving the honor and respect that his immense stature as a leader in the Emancipation crusade is being recognized and celebrated in his own hometown!”
On Feb. 25, the O.V. Catto Society will pay its annual tribute to the fallen hero on Octavius Catto Day. The day will begin with the honoring of Catto with a wreath-laying ceremony at 6th & Lombard Streets, near his home and where he was assassinated. Following will be the presentation of the Maj. Octavius Catto Medal to two National Guard soldiers at the Union League Armed Services Committee luncheon.
This year, the Pennsylvania National Guard recipients of the 2017 Maj. Catto Medal of Achievement are Lt. Col. Adam Colombo, 111th Attack Wing Air Guard; and SSG Travis Goebel, EAATS Army Guard. Tickets for the event are $35.